Chinese Literature - Li-hua Ying 2010

The Dictionary

YANG HANSHENG A.K.A. HUA HAN, PEN NAMES OF OUYANG BENYI (1902—1993). Playwright and screenplay and fiction writer. One of the leaders of the leftist Chinese literary establishment, Yang Hansheng had a long career that spanned seven decades. A Sichuan native, Yang graduated from Shanghai University. He joined the Chinese Communist Party in 1925 and thereafter began his work as a career revolutionary activist. He was a political staff member in the Nationalist army when the Nationalists and the Communists were working together against the warlords and participated in the Communist-led Nanchang Uprising. In 1929, he was the party secretary of the Left-wing Association of Chinese Writers.

The trajectory of Yang’s literary career was similar to that of other early revolutionary writers, such as Hong Lingfei and Jiang Guangci, who emerged from the May Fourth Movement to champion radical changes in Chinese society through their writings. Yang began as a fiction writer. From the romantic and revolutionary young intellectual hero who wallows in despair over personal and national predicaments to peasant/worker rebels, his protagonists changed as he became better acquainted with the objectives of the Communist revolution. A member of the Creation Society, Yang was a passionate advocate of a utilitarian literature that served the high purpose of the revolutionary cause. A prolific writer in the proletarian literary movement of the 1920s and the early 1930s, he published, under the pen name Hua Han, numerous stories, several novellas, and a novel. In these early works, Yang injects a heavy dose of romantic sentimentalism into his characters, resulting in the style of “revolution plus love,” which characterizes the so-called proletarian literature (puluo wenxue) of the 1920s. Nü qiu (The Female Prisoner), written in the form of letters, is narrated by a woman put in prison after being accused of subversive activities. Another novella, Liangge nüxing (Two Women), deals with the choices young intellectuals make in the turbulent years of the late 1920s when factions, including the Nationalists, the Communists, and the various warlords, were vying with one another for political power. In his trilogy Di quan (The Underground Spring), published in 1930 and generally believed to be his best fictional work, Yang expands his scope to include peasants and workers in armed uprisings. Two years later when the novel was reissued, five prefaces, including one written by Yang himself, were attached. In their critiques of the work, Mao Dun, Qu Qiubai, and two other leftist critics used the novel as an example to assess the achievements and shortcomings of the proletarian literature, paying tribute to its clear political purpose but criticizing its stereotyped characters and unrealistic plots.

One cannot be certain whether these criticisms had contributed to Yang’s move away from fiction to plays and screenplays, but starting from 1933 when he entered the Shanghai Yihua Film Studio until the end of his career, Yang devoted his creative energy to film and theater, turning out a total of more than 90 plays and screenplays under the pen name Yang Hansheng, which he adopted in 1933 when he wrote Tieban hong lei lu (Tears on the Iron Plate), a movie about Sichuan peasants rising against a local tyrant. Working closely with Tian Han, another leftist filmmaker and playwright, Yang wrote some of the best-known films and plays in the left-wing movement, including such classics as Wan jia denghuo (City Lights), a realistic portrayal of a middle-class family driven apart by economic pressure and typical domestic quarrels between the mother-in-law and the daughter-in-law, and San Mao liulang ji (A Young Vagabond) about the sad but dignified life of a street urchin, as well as plays based on the 19th-century Taiping peasant uprising: Li Xiucheng zhi si (The Death of Li Xiucheng), Tian guo chun qiu (The History of the Taiping Rebellion), and Caomang yingxiong (The Rebel Hero). Conceived as part of a national salvation agenda, the historical plays used the cautionary tales of the Taiping rebels to warn about infighting, urging the Chinese people to unite against their common enemy during the Sino-Japanese War. Later in the Civil War, Yang wrote plays to expose social injustice and to encourage rebellion against oppression, part of a national campaign orchestrated by the Communist Party. For many years during the wars, Yang worked for various theater and film companies. He was a founder of the Chinese Dramatic Arts Society (Zhonghua juyi she), established in 1941 to perform progressive plays in the areas controlled by the Nationalists. After 1949, Yang served as deputy chairman of the National Association of Culture as well as many other administrative and honorary positions in the government. See also SPOKEN DRAMA.